The Kremlin has changed a number of its Twitter account avatars to an image of a Russian gun rights activist charged by the US with spying.
In a bid to generate public support for Maria Butina, Moscow’s foreign ministry urged social media users to join it in changing their profile pictures to a photo of the 29-year-old student.
The provocative move came after a US judge’s decision to jail Ms Butina, pending her trial over allegations she spied for Russia by infiltrating the National Rifle Association (NRA).
In a court filing, prosecutors said Ms Butina was a clear flight risk due to her connections with Russian oligarchs, and that she was likely to appeal to Russians who could help her flee the country.
“In connection with the arrest in #USA of Russian citizen Maria Butina, we are starting a flash mob in her support,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Russian-language account said on Twitter. “Put on your avatar a picture of Maria.”
The foreign ministry’s Spanish and English-language Twitter accounts also changed their profile pictures to images of Ms Butina, with the latter including the hashtags #NewProfilePic and #FreeMariaButina in a tweet announcing the move.
On Thursday, Russian media confirmed diplomats from the country’s embassy in the US had visited Ms Butina in custody.
Moscow has condemned her arrest as “anti-Russian hysteria” driven by US domestic politics, with a foreign ministry spokesperson suggesting it was an attempt to sabotage positive news coming out of Donald Trump’s summit in Helsinki with Vladimir Putin.
Court documents released at her hearing on Wednesday outlined ways Ms Butina allegedly worked covertly to establish back-channel lines of communication to the Kremlin and infiltrate US political organisations, including the NRA.
She has also been charged with lying on her student visa about her employment with a top Russian official who was sanctioned by the US government in April.
The Russian national pleaded not guilty to all charges during her preliminary hearing, and will be detained while awaiting her court date.
Officials said Ms Butina was investigated by the FBI’s Washington office and was being prosecuted by the US attorney’s office in Washington.
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